Opinion

Mandatory FAFSA will help thousands of students, and we all need to be invested in it

I don’t expect Illinois to hit 100 percent, but we owe it to our kids to get this right.

That’s because it’s about opportunity. And equity. And the very different life trajectory a college degree can give a young person.

Only 67% of Illinois’ high school seniors filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for this school year. That figure puts Illinois 11th in the ranking for the percentage of students applying for federal funding to go to college. This application impacts eligibility for Illinois state assistance in the form of the Monetary Award Program (MAP) and aid from colleges or universities.

The FAFSA is critical to any student trying to pay for college. It’s even more critical to underrepresented groups who often face daunting financial hurdles that make the idea of college or post-secondary education more a pipe dream than a realistic pathway.

To tackle this head-on, Illinois has made completing and filing a FAFSA mandatory rather than left to chance. Taking effect in the 2020-2021 school year, high school seniors across the state must file a FAFSA to obtain their high school diplomas. (There will be waivers available for students and families who have extenuating circumstances.) We follow Louisiana, which passed similar legislation several years ago, and its completion rate as of late August was 87 percent. Louisiana ranked first.

How do we permanently leave behind our 11th place standing?

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which oversees MAP here in Illinois, is implementing this effort and it will take all of us: parents, teachers, community leaders, and other stakeholders to promote that the pathway to college affordability and attainment begins with the completion of the FASFA. Let’s make sure everyone knows that the FAFSA is free, leads to millions of dollars in financial assistance, makes college possible, and help to complete it is available to anyone.

While a bachelor’s degree isn’t for everyone, some post-secondary education or skills development can make all the difference in the world. If you want a career that requires a college degree—and studies show 60 percent of jobs in Illinois will require a degree or high-level certificate by 2025—every kid in Illinois should have the opportunity to pursue that degree here in Illinois.

But if our kids don’t even complete the first step by filing their FAFSA, they will never learn just how attainable a postsecondary education can be here in Illinois. We have a wealth of post-secondary opportunity in public or private four-year institutions, or one of our amazing community colleges, like the College of DuPage, where I got my start, which are accessible with the help of financial aid.

The FAFSA application period opened Oct. 1, and here in Illinois, the earlier you file, the higher on the list you’ll be for state assistance. Timeliness matters.

Let’s get as many students on the list as possible.

John Atkinson is chair of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and executive vice president and managing director of Willis Towers Watson in Chicago. He lives in Burr Ridge.
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